The End of the “Real You” Online

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A quick experiment: scroll through your social feeds right now. How many posts/statements make you cringe? Sure, some heartfelt ones may be nice to see — if you have an actual connection to that person. But are they sharing that personal expression with thousands of people? Should they be? Even crazier: are some people you know saying things they absolutely shouldn’t be saying in public? Twitter has unleashed the id in far too many people. And jacked it directly into the largest and loudest megaphone ever created.

And so I’m left wondering if the kids haven’t shown us the right path here. For years, young people have been locking down their social accounts to new followers, opting to add (and remove) people on an ad-hoc basis. Certainly, in an era where your parents are on said networks, this makes sense. But it actually makes sense for a number of reasons. And many people I know who are not kids are now locking down their accounts — some even after years spent living in public.

 

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Ding Dong, the Feed Is Dead

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Even if a tweet didn’t ruin your life, you still have an archive of embarrassment that Facebook has diligently saved for you: ill-advised jokes, too-earnest expressions of emotion, and photos in which we simply look terrible. While movements like #deletefacebook were ostensibly about protecting your data from corporations, perhaps they also reflected a desire for another kind of privacy: a way to just erase all that unflattering history.

So we developed ad-hoc fixes: anonymous Twitter accounts, teen “Finstagrams,” group texts, private Slacks, deactivating Facebook when you’re not online. (They’re not perfect. It only took a few hours Gizmodo to find James Comey’s supposedly secret Twitter account.) The decline in oversharing wasn’t just about the difficulty of maintaining a pristine persona; it was also that the space for oversharing started to feel inappropriate, and sometimes even unsafe.

In response, tech companies have leaned hard on the “story.” The disappearing images and videos were first popularized by Snapchat, but are showing up everywhere else, too. The beauty of stories is that they are messier and rougher than regular posts, focused on fun and immediacy instead of how they’ll look in hindsight. And why shouldn’t they be? A few hours later, they’ll just delete. Instagram claims 300 million daily users of the feature.

What happens next is probably not the overthrow of Facebook or Twitter— especially now that those platforms are making a lot of noise about how they want to change. The need for an online presence, even if it’s just LinkedIn, is a big historical shift, not just a fad.

The New York Times Fired My Doppelgänger

A black-and-white photograph of Quinn Norton superimposed on an upside-down image of the New York Times building in New York

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But this isn’t what the internet did with the idea of me that emerged from a scatter of tweets before Valentine’s Day. The internet lets people create and then interact with a character. Regardless of who I am and what I’ve done, there is now a Nazi-sympathizing and homophobic “Quinn Norton” out there: She was born into privilege, and in some versions of this story even attended two universities in California. She is an abusive and deceptive person, who lies about her family, her disabilities, and even her sexuality. She is also fictional, a creation of a collaborative writing process that took place on social-publishing platforms, over a matter of days, between countless people who had never met each other. That creativity, however much I believe it was misapplied in this case, is part of what makes our networks miraculous and wonderfully strange. I wish it hadn’t affected my life, but it also illustrates to me why my work is important, and why I must continue exploring and explaining these things.

Context collapse is our constant companion online. The openness of the web that has given us so much has given us this phenomenon, too, and it complicates things. It isn’t inherently dangerous, but it does require work and critical thought. The internet makes us telepathic, angry, and weird—but it also lets us collaborate, remix, and rapidly reconfigure one another’s ideas on a massive scale.

Around Valentine’s Day, people found some things I’ve said over the last decade upsetting. Some of those things I said, and the way that I said them, I stand by completely. They require context to understand, but that’s not a flaw—that’s part of what makes them complicated and useful thoughts. Some things I’ve said—mostly things not discovered by the mob, to be honest—are not so great, and I don’t agree with them now. But that’s a worthwhile part of my story. I’d hate to think I haven’t learned anything in the last 20 years. I used to think that color-blindness and not talking about race would fix racism. They won’t. I used to be too scared to let people know when I didn’t understand something, and just muddle through hoping I wouldn’t get caught. That was a terrible way of dealing with the world. I used to think that showing someone how wrong they were on the internet could fix the world. I said a lot of stupid things when I believed that.

I Am Not My Internet Personality, and You Probably Aren’t Yours, Either.

Photo: Heide Benser/Corbis

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It is part of the modern condition to pose and posture online, and it can be very fun to make fun of the various ways in which people make asses of themselves. But the unfiltered nature and open playing field of social media make it easy to forget that it’s all a performance. In person, Michael was great! Really and truly. His terrible use of social media was part deliberate schtick and part stone-cold, childlike buffoonery, but it was all very lovable.

…The gap between public and private personae used to be the exclusive concern of entertainers, but now anybody who wants to can live Martin. Plenty of prestige bloggery has been devoted to analyzing the phenomenon of “social-media happiness fraud,” which we’ve somehow elevated to Russian-novel levels of agony: Those people posing in bikinis? Don’t feel too envious of them, we’ve been told, for they are dead inside, too.

The ability to “research” people this way has already been catastrophic for casual dating, as we’ve all been forced to reduce other human beings to a series of forensic clues so as not to be murdered or have a boring two hours at a restaurant. While certainly expedient, the newish convention of deciding whether you like somebody before you have ever been in their physical presence is both depressing and a teensy bit unfair. Doing it to people we are already in actual relationships with is bananas and horrible. I’ve had to defend friends to the friends I’m trying to set them up with by saying things like “She’s not like this in person.” It is possible to excessively photograph your cat and be lovely to spend time with. It would be cool if we could just maybe start giving people the benefit of the doubt on this.